What Does President Trump Know and When Did He Know It?

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Spoiler Alert: This is not what you are expecting. This is not a column about politics (good or bad); it’s an article about journalism (good and bad).

OK, it’s also a commentary on today’s political scene, but only because it provides an instructive backdrop to the most salient points I wish to make about the art of reporting.

Let’s start with a scene from two years ago. It’s not from a political convention, it’s from a journalism conference in New York City. It the annual New York City conference for “SABEW,” the Society of American Business Editors and Writers (as it was then called).

Coming off a year of all-Trump coverage and the height of excitement during the first few months of the Muller investigation, SABEW featured a panel under the title “The McGraw Symposium: From Fake News to Virtual Reality – Journalism in the Age of Trump.” The Symposium was described thusly:

“Rarely has the news media faced such an array of challenges. Amidst allegations of “fake news” and media bias, attacks on the freedom of the press – and sometimes, on journalists themselves – have been a feature of the most acrimonious relationship between the media and the Administration in a generation. Meanwhile, the pace of digital change continues to intensify, as newsrooms double down on video and experiment with new tools such as bots and virtual reality. At the fourth annual McGraw Symposium, sponsored by the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the CUNY J-School, top editors from Time Inc., the Associated Press and Vice News will discuss the state of the industry. We’ll talk about how they’re tackling these challenges, transforming their newsrooms, and perhaps most important – where they see opportunities ahead.”

As the panel focused on Trump and the then current allegations being investigated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, there was an air of certainty regarding the eventual outcome of Mueller’s investigation: impeachment. In the minds of the panel, Trump was already guilty of colluding with “the Russians,” the Steele Dossier was hard core fact (pun intended), and the only reasonable conclusion would be to call for the removal of the President “within months.”

In the middle of this perfectly choreographed ballet of group think, panel moderator Jane Sasseen asked an intriguing question. Prior to becoming the Executive Director of the McGraw Center for Business Journalism, Sasseen spent 15 years at BusinessWeek as news editor, national correspondent and Washington bureau chief and then went on to serve as editor-in-chief of politics and opinion at Yahoo! News.

She asked this (and I paraphrase): “What if – for all the accusations, all the inuendo, all the shouting – what if the public likens the media to ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’? What happens if we really find something after all this hype? Would the public believe us?”

The panel paused, as if they didn’t expect the question, almost as if asking it was heresy. But then they laughed it off, ignoring its implications.

After the session, I went up to speak to one of the panelists, Gerard Baker, at the time the Editor-in-Chief at The Wall Street Journal. Allegedly a Trump sympathizer, I asked Baker the obvious reporter question: “What if the Russian collusion was instigated by Trump opponents, not Trump himself?”

It was idle speculation on my part. I had no idea Mueller would conclude Trump had nothing to do with Russian collusion. Furthermore, I had no idea we’d later discover the whole affair would be investigated as “an insurance policy” apparently hatched within the FBI and other members of the Obama administration as well as likely the Clinton campaign.

I knew none of this when I asked Baker my question. I was just asking a speculative, skeptical, thought-provoking question. The kind journalists are supposed to ask.

Baker scoffed at the idea the whole thing was a set-up. He didn’t think it was possible the reporting was wrong. Nor did he feel anyone should question the reporting. In a sense he said the same thing the panel implied following Sasseen’s question: “Why would anyone ever assume the public would never believe us? For we are the undisputed watchdogs of America!”.

Yet, a year later (from November 27-December 10, 2018), a Pew Research Center Survey indicated two-thirds (66%) of Americans think journalists behave unethically either “all or most of the time” or “some of the time.”

That’s the bad news.

The news gets worse. A clear majority of Americans (54%) think journalists admit or take responsibility for their mistakes “only a little” or “none” of the time.

Still, the good news (for journalists) is, for all the distrust engendered, more than half (53%) of those same respondents don’t think unethical behavior by journalists “results in serious consequences.”

Here’s the real problem, though. The perception of journalism is extremely bifurcated. It’s now fair to say journalists only speak for – and to – only one faction of society. Journalism therefore fails if its objective is to fairly represent all sides of the issue. Journalists may assume they do, they many think they do, they may insist they do.

The “settled science” – the empirical evidence of the Pew Research Center – proves them wrong.

The same survey cited about shows it. While a vast majority (74%) of those describing themselves as Democrats believe journalists “cover all sides of an issue fairly,” only 31% of those describing themselves as Republicans feel the same way.

And let’s look at how this partisan breakdown relates to some of the earlier questions.

Broken down by party, 73% of Republicans and a surprising 39% of Democrats agree journalists “fail to admit mistakes and take responsibility for them.” Remember, 54% of all Americans think journalists fail to do this. If we assume America is split evenly in thirds between Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, then half of the independent folks also feed journalists fail in this ethical standard.

Speaking of unethical behavior, what’s the party-line look like on that? Given the above, it won’t shock you to discover a full 82% of Republicans see journalists as acting unethically “all or most, or some of the time.” It may, however, astonish you to find out more than half (53%) of Democrats also believe this. Again, extrapolating as before, we can impute from this that 63% of Independent voters also believe journalists behave unethically.

There’s a bright side if you’re a journalist. There’s one group that Americans distrust more than journalists. More than eight in ten (81%) of Americans believe members of Congress “behave unethically at least a little of the time.”

Let’s return to the current political climate. Who’s leading the charge when it comes to advocating impeachment? Members of Congress and journalists.

What can journalists do to avoid compounding this distrust?

Members of the media cannot make the same mistake with impeachment that they made with the Mueller investigation.

During that SABEW Conference in October of 2017, someone asked what young journalists can study to become better journalists. I stood up and admitted I had no formal training as a journalist. On the other hand, I said I was a trained astrophysicist. I told them a rigorous study of science and the scientific method will help aspiring journalists to ask objective, skeptical, and thought-provoking questions.

In many ways, the proper questions you might expect a true journalist to ask during this impeachment drama might be along the line of:

  • What does President Trump know and when did he know it?
  • Why are so many afraid of what Trump knows and why are they trying to stop him from exposing it?
  • What is “Crowdstrike” and what might it reveal about the corruption during the 2016 campaign?
  • “Did Joe Biden really bribe Ukraine to stop investigating his son or was his public admission of this just another exaggeration?
  • When did House Democrats first speak with the whistleblower and was that conversation direct or through a third party (and who was that third party)?
  • What exact date in August of 2019 did the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) change the reporting requirements of whistleblowers to allow hearsay as opposed to direct eyewitness evidence and why was this change made and when was it made (before or after the original contact with the “whistleblower”)?
  • How do the Biden corruption allegations fall under the Clinton-era agreement with the Ukraine regarding mutual legal assistance in criminal matters?

That’s only a taste of what comes off the top of a head on a cloudy Saturday morning. You can see they are quite scientific. They test the basic assumptions through objective, skeptical, and thought-provoking questions.

These questions also do one more thing that all good reporters do. They ask what no one else is asking. Maybe even what others might be too afraid to ask.

If you’re going to be a watchdog, you’ve got to be brave enough to put yourself in tough situations.

Comments

  1. Mike Burke says

    Three things:
    1) I find your questions to be just as lopsided as the situations you complain about.
    2) One tragedy of the Donald Trump situation is that though he does raise tough questions that have been kicked down the road by both Parties for years, he doesn’t manage/pursue the ensuing discussions/arguments as either an adult or as a scientist. Basically, I see him as an arsonist. It’s easy to start fires that consume all the oxygen in the room; it takes real work to build something meaningful.
    3) Re: What I sense you are referring to as “journalism” on both sides of the political spectrum – most of what we encounter via the media these days is entertainment & opinion, not journalism. Don’t conflate the two. Perhaps you being trained as a scientist rather than as a journalist means you don’t recognize the difference among what a journalist does vs. one who opines or entertains vs. one who creates hypotheses that are confirmed or refuted by experiment.

  2. Chris Carosa says

    Mike! First, thank you very much for reading! Second, thank you double for commenting. I occasionally try to write provocative pieces like this just to see: a) If anyone is reading them; and b) If anyone is brave enough to offer a comment one way or another. You score on both points! I’ll had a comment below yours to reveal some “inside baseball” that I hope at least begins to answer your questions.

  3. Chris Carosa says

    Mike:
    Thanks again for your comments. Here are some thoughts in response to your three things:
    1) Yes, of course. They were constructed that way on purpose. They represent the mirror image of the questions that were then currently being asked. As such, they represent a broad range. Oddly, it turns out questions #5 and #6 were the right ones to ask. Just as in the original story, I didn’t know they would turn out to be true. Lucky guess? Definitely. But that’s what happens when “objective, skeptical, and thought-provoking” questions. (BTW: “Objective” and “skeptical” cannot possibly be used at the same time, that’s the irony of it.)
    2) Interesting metaphor. I like it, although I think it’s too early to reach any conclusions. I’ll leave that to the historians (not the journalists).
    3) So, yeah, I see what you’re saying, and you’re right. Perhaps this is where I suffer from being too close to the inside. You see, although most people would differentiate between “opinion” and “journalism” the current prevailing school of thoughts is that all reporters should be advocates. This is the basic premise behind “watchdog” and “investigative” journalism. It needn’t be, but it is. Old school journalists (there are still a few left) truly do believe a reporter is just a scientist that can write “better.” (I put “better” in quotes because a trained scientist would shun the way reporters write. They’re trained to use the passive voice and write analytically, devoid of emotion, with no tolerance for the connotative, only for the denotative. For a better sense of this kind of dichotomy, take a look at C.P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures.”)
    Again, thank you very much for your comment and I hope you find my response worthy.

  4. Polite & respectful discourse is the foundation of civilization. There’s a very fragile compact that allows our civilization to survive. Here’s hoping that compact doesn’t get turned to ashes.

  5. Chris Carosa says

    Agreed.

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